Today in European history: the Siege of Chandax ends (961)

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The island of Crete has changed hands so many times that it can be hard to keep track of all of its various owners and operators. Before it became Greek again (which includes a period of Axis occupation during World War II), Crete was (briefly) independent, and before that Ottoman, before that Venetian, Byzantine, Roman...and it just keeps going like this until you get all the way back to when it was Greek the first time.

Crete was also ruled by Arabs for around 130 years in the 9th and 10th centuries, though sometimes that period gets overlooked. There’s not very much written historical evidence from the period—mostly Byzantine sources, very little in any Muslim source—and likewise very little archeological evidence. That’s one reason it doesn’t get as much attention. Another, I suspect, is the fact that Crete’s Arab period is sandwiched between the two halves of its Byzantine period. The Siege of Chandax (modern Heraklion), which ended on this date in 961, marks the end of Arab rule over the island and its return to Byzantine control.

Crete came under Arab control through pretty circuitous means. As successful as their militaries were on land, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates lagged behind their Byzantine rival in terms of naval power, and consequently they didn’t have a lot of success conquering major Mediterranean islands. This is why Rhodes and Cyprus didn’t come fully under Muslim control until the Ottomans captured both in the 16th century. Cyprus, which appears in green as an Abbasid territory on the map above, was actually ruled in condominium by the Abbasids and the Byzantines together, an odd arrangement that came to an end when the Byzantines took back full control of the island in 965. Yes, the Aghlabids conquered Sicily in the 9th century, but they were coming from North Africa, and you don’t have to be a great seafaring power to move armies from North Africa to Sicily. And yes, the Fatimid Caliphate came to be known as a major naval power, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Crete stands as an exception to a fairly meager early Arab record at sea, but even in this case its conquest was not achieved through any action by the Abbasid caliphate. Crete was conquered not by advancing Muslim forces from the east, but rather by a group of fleeing Muslim exiles from the west.

These exiles were a motley band of pirates/rebels/etc. led by a man named Abu Hafs Umar al-Iqritishi (“the Cretan”), who had to hightail it out of al-Andalus in the late 810s. They were predominantly muwallads, which derives from the Arabic root for “birth” and is a broad term that has had multiple meanings at different times and in different places over the course of Islamic history. Its earliest use was to describe the descendants of non-Arab converts to Islam (the Arab chauvinism of the early Islamic community demanded a separate classification for non-Arab Muslims even in the generations after conversion). To the extent you encounter the term nowadays, it’s most often applied to children of mixed/part-Arab heritage who are raised as Arabs or, in some cases, to non-Arabs who were raised in an Arab home for whatever reason. In the context of Islamic Spain (where it’s perhaps most often encountered) the term could have meant any or all of the above—descendants of non-Arab converts to Islam (which could have included Berbers as well as Iberians), people with mixed Arab-Berber/Arab-Iberian/etc. heritage, and so on.

We can infer that Andalusian muwallads were not generally treated as well as Arab residents of Andalusia from their multiple rebellions. People don’t usually rebel just for the heck of it, after all. Muwallad revolts broke out at multiple times and in multiple places all over Andalusia, especially while the Umayyads were in charge there, but only one of them concerns us today. That revolt broke out in Córdoba in 814, and that’s when and where Abu Hafs and his followers began their journey to Crete. This revolt was suppressed, as these things generally were, and thousands of rebels and their families were exiled as a result. One group of these exiles made for Egypt—Alexandria specifically—under Abu Hafs’ leadership. After failing to capture that city, they headed north (OK, northwest, whatever) and arrived on Crete in around 824.

It took Abu Hafs and his followers a few years, but they were able to take the whole island from the Byzantines by 828 or thereabouts, establishing the Emirate of Crete. The Byzantines, then under Michael II (d. 829), also known as “Michael the Amorian” after his birthplace or “Michael the Stammerer” after...well, that should be obvious, were just emerging from a very long, very tumultuous civil war caused by the revolt of the less creatively nicknamed Thomas the Slav (d. 823). Their military was so depleted that there was nothing they could do to stop either this conquest or the initial phases of the aforementioned Aghlabid conquest of Sicily, which began in 827 and wouldn’t be totally finished until 902. The new rulers of Crete recognized the authority of the Abbasid caliphate and to some degree the administration of the Tulunids, the dynasty that was governing Egypt on the Abbasids’ behalf, but in any practical sense they were independent of both.

The Arab presence on Crete was for the most part intolerable for the Byzantines. While their empire had been greatly diminished by the Arab conquests on the mainland, the Byzantines had retained their control over the Aegean and its shipping lanes. Now that control was threatened. The Cretans were pretty good sailors and became pretty good pirates, attacking and raiding Byzantine ships and ports all over the eastern Mediterranean. They were also more than happy to allow Abbasid and/or Tulunid fleets to use Crete as a staging point for their own assaults on the Byzantines. And so there are numerous failed Byzantine attempts to regain the island. There was an effort in the 830s that failed, one in the 840s that almost succeeded, another failure in the 860s, get the idea. The Byzantines also reorganized their navy to deal with the Cretan raiders more effectively, but that had, at best, mixed results. There were periods when the Byzantines were able to somewhat contain the Cretan threat, and then there were periods—like in 904 when a fleet that had staged out of Crete sacked Thessalonica—when that same Cretan threat got very much out of control.

Yet another failed expedition to retake the island in 949 seems to have angered the Byzantines enough to try again right away. So Emperor Constantine VII began preparing for another attempt, and when he died in 959 his son, Romanos II, continued those preparations. He appointed the future Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, who at this point was just the very successful general Nikephoros Phokas, to lead the expedition. Thanks to the rare coincidence of simultaneous peace treaties with both the mainland Arabs and the Bulgarians—the Byzantines were usually in a state of war or at least significant tension with one or the other, if not both—Nikephoros was able to amass a very large force for this invasion. He led an army of probably around 50,000 men, which was almost certainly the largest party the Byzantines had ever sent on one of these Cretan expeditions.

Perhaps owing to its size, Nikephoros’ army was able to rout the Cretan force that met it when it disembarked and chase it all the way back to Chandax, the emirate’s capital, arriving sometime in the autumn of 960. The Byzantines were unable to break into the city at that time, so they besieged it instead. Thanks to some good intelligence-gathering they were able to surprise and destroy an Arab relief army, but still they were unable to breach the city walls. Consequently, Nikephoros ordered the construction of larger siege engines and decided to wait until they were ready before he ordered another attack. The Cretan emir, Abd al-Aziz ibn Shuʿayb, appealed for aid to the Fatimids in Egypt and the Umayyads in Cordoba, but to no avail in either case. The second Byzantine assault finally came in March 961 and, despite all the swanky new siege engines, only proved successful when Nikephoros ordered his men to undermine the wall and plant explosives beneath it. This had the intended effect, and the city fell.

Once Chandax fell, the Byzantines had little trouble conquering the rest of the island and thereby affecting the total collapse of the Emirate of Crete. The island of Crete would remain part of the Byzantine Empire until the Fourth Crusade saw it taken by the crusaders and subsequently sold to Venice in 1205.